The Familly Life of Orcs

Recently I realized that traditionally evil races such as Orcs, Goblins, Kobolds and etc. in RPG games rarely have fleshed out social backgrounds, or detailed descriptions of daily lives. It’s as if every member of each respective evil race was a male warrior, whose only desire in life is to wander around in the wilderness hoping to bump into a party of adventurers he could fight. The have no other ambitions, goals, dreams – they do not form families, they do not raise children, hunt or grow crops. All they ever do is raiding human villages, looting, pillaging and raping innocent women (I mean, that’s where you get all these Half-Orcs, no?).

I touched upon this subject before when I talked about my experiences playing Horde character in World of Warcraft. As I said in that post, both Horde and the Alliance are good guys in this game. They are enemies because of their history, and their beliefs. Orcs are not some feral beasts in this game – just tribal people with a war-like culture. As you run around Kalimdor however you will see that war is not all they are about. In several places you can see Orcish kids running around and playing. Somewhere there is a house and inside there is an Orc woman preparing a meal for her husband and son. There is a dude in Crossroads who hires adventurers to search for his lost wife. You quickly get the picture that these green skinned creatures are not some bloodthirsty monsters – they form families, they love, they hate, they play with their kids and etc.

In that aspect WoW portrays Orcs in much more detail and in much kinder light than most RPG’s out there, including the pen and paper ones. Apparently I’m not the only person who noticed this. Go check out David’s post Orcs are not just Orcs at the Verbing Noun blog. He makes some excellent suggestions for fleshing out the traditional antagonist races in your RPG campaigns, and how to subtly subvert your traditional “go kill all the Orcs in the Orc camp” quest into something entirely different. Instead of a simple hack and slash, your company is faced with a moral conundrum.

The PC’s know that if they do nothing Orcs will continue raiding nearby villages. But can a good aligned company justify a preemptive raid on an Orc camp/village full of women, children and elderly non-combatants? How will a lawful good paladin feel about looting Orc war-chief’s body for that +2 Awesome Mace of Awesomeness if his an Orc woman is crying and pleading to take her husbands body and give him a proper burial?

Orc Mother and Son

Orc Mother and Son

Perhaps if the players stopped, and looked at how the Orcs live they would realize they are not just some barbaric, evil monsters. They are a race with it’s own culture, traditions, oral history, and a deeply rooted morality system which may seem alien to us because it is based on a different alignment.

It is a deliciously insidious idea – to start with a very traditional setup, and then flip it around and make the PC’s realize that perhaps they can’t become heroes without becoming monsters. They can feel the same way Robert Neville felt in Mathesons’ I am Legend (the short story not the movie). Humans will hail them as heroes, and saviors but amongst Orcs and their allies they will be despised and known known as ruthless butchers – a living proof of human cruelty and destructive drive that is causing the conflict between the two races.

In fact, if you think about it this seemingly random, one-off encounter may be spun into a lengthy campaign in which the PC’s must deal with the fallout and repercussions of their reckless raid. For example their legendary cruelty was a catalyst that helps to unite local tribes under one banner and an all out war is about to break out? How can they prevent it? Will they negotiate? Will they try to assassinate the leaders and instigators driving the Orc war machine? Will they be willing to give themselves up and accept punishment for their deeds in the name of peace? It could be interesting stuff.

Orc Mother Minis

There even exist miniatures you can use to represent Orc non-combatants in your games.

Thanks to WoW and David’s article I will never look at evil humanoids such as Orcs, Goblins, Kobolds and the like the same way again. I will now always wonder what are their reasons for doing what they do. What are their daily lives like. How are their families structured. What values are important to them. And how can I make the PC’s feel like shit for killing them. ;)

Of course there is the opposite approach. If you don’t want to deal with these moral quandaries, you can simply say that Orcs, Goblins and the like are inhuman, supernatural beasts who do not reproduce, do not form families and exists solely to participate in random encounters.

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11 Responses to The Familly Life of Orcs

  1. Ian Clifton UNITED STATES Safari Mac OS says:

    [quote post=”2608″]But can a good aligned company justify a preemptive raid on an Orc camp/village full of women, children and elderly non-combatants?[/quote]

    Can said company claim the Orcs have weapons of mass destruction (e.g., catapult)?

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  2. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    Great! Way to go! You took my RPG related ramblings and turned them all political now. lol

    But I’ll ignore the obvious political bait here and run with this. Let’s say the orcs do have a WMD – a magical artifact or a spell that could level the village, scorch the earth, poison the wells and kill all humans in a mile radious. The Orcs are threatening to use it unless the village pays a ransom or something like that.

    Players get sent to assassinate the powerful Orc shaman who wields the artifact. When they reach the camp they realize Orcs are starving. The shaman turns out to be a father of 6, or an elderly Orc taking care of group of orphans who’se parents were killed in skirmishes with village people and other adventurers.

    The players have a choice to kill the shaman (as well as his defenders) and retrieve the artifact (risking activation during combat), try to steal/deactivate the device without spilling to much blood, try to negotiate with the Orc tribe or try to initiate peace talks.

    Then we find that Orcs have distinct culture and customs and that they may not respond to polite advice or threats or ultimatums the same way men would do.

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  3. Ian Clifton UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Linux says:

    Haha, sorry, the comment was practically automatic after reading the post ;)

    If the orcs are threatening to use their weapon, I suppose the humans (or whatever) are justified in attacking, though I’m an idealist (political solution if at all possible, if not, whatever results in the least loss of life such as covertly stealing/disabling the weapon). If the players do attack, then they have to do whatever it takes to eliminate the threat, even if that includes killing young orcs who have picked up weapons. If everyone is starving in the camp, perhaps that would have been a good bargaining point to avoid the combat in the first place.

    Enemies have always been dehumanized (for lack of a better term). The enemies are always the “bad” ones, so we’re justified in killing them. We don’t want to know if/that they have families and many of the same values as us. It’s true in real life. The German and Japanese forces of WWII are nearly always made to be bad/evil in US history classes (at least, pre-college courses), as if every individual in those militaries actively sought out the chance to join the military in order to spread death. It’s still being done in current conflicts (I’ll avoid specifics so that this will stay RPG-related ;)). It’s been done in video games (stomp that Goomba, because he’s a Goomba!). We’re very much a culture of us vs. them and our forms of entertainment (movies, video games, etc.) often take advantage of that.

    It would be great if video games really took advantage of the reality and culture that you’re talking about. Just imagine a game that spans a decent period of time… you decide you’re going to charge into that village and kill everyone on your way to get the dangerous magic item. One of the shaman’s children survives and you have seeded a deep hatred for *insert your race here* in his mind. He builds the village back up and then starts to create an army to attack small villages of your race, causing more hostilities on both sides. Eventually, your simple “rush and and take them out” approach causes a massive war, resulting in far more deaths than that weapon might have caused. Hmm, starting to sound a bit realistic…

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  4. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    Yup, but it is also a great way to hook the players into the game world. A simple throw away adventure may turn into a massive campaign. Or for example, you can reuse the setting. For example if you are starting a new campaign and it calls for war-torn kingdom, or a post-war climate of some sort you could tie it into the previous campaign where the party of adventurers decimated the Orc village.

    I don’t know – I’d sort of like this level of “realism” in a game.

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  5. Alphast NETHERLANDS Mozilla Firefox Linux Terminalist says:

    That’s again a point where Morrowind and the Bethesda Software people were pioneers. Well before WoW, who had Orcs (and Lizzard Men and Dark Elves) being good guys and a playable faction?

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  6. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    Well, quite a few pen and paper systems have Orcs as playable races before. Notable ones I can remember of the top of my head were Earthdawn (which had orcs, trolls and sprites/fairies and rock-elemental like dudes as playable), and polish RPG Time Crystals (where Orcs were the dominant civilized race).

    Most of these games (including Morrowind) have Orcs being good guys – they live at peace with humans, they trade, they live in their cities and can go adventuring with the PC’s. In those games there is usually another race of obligatory evil-humanoids for the adventurers to beat up.

    The idea here is to inject some realism into traditional RPG settings where Orcs are not really integrated into the human society like in Morrowind.

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  7. Steve CANADA Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    You will notice, however, that the obligatory “evil races” in Morrowind/Oblivion and even WoW are demonic…meaning there is no doubt they are “evil”, at least in the logic of the game. I can’t remember what they were actually called in Morrowind/Oblivion, but they were still summoned demons, no?

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  8. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    I think in Morrowind you had Daedra which were demons of sorts. Although I’m not sure if they could be considered truly evil. As far as I can remember Daedra were forces of entropy to counterbalance the Aedra – forces of creation. Or something like that.

    In WoW too, I think that the line is blurred and not all demons are enemies. For example, isn’t that guy with horns, wings and hooves in Sylvana’s chamber who gives you the Scarlet Monastery quest a demon? At least he looks like one, but I might be wrong. :P

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  9. Alphast NETHERLANDS Mozilla Firefox Linux Terminalist says:

    Daedras in Bethesda games are demonic, but they are not races. More like supernatural entities whose avatars are coming from Oblivion ot bring chaos and indeed entropy. They are evil, but they are not a true culture. This said, in Morrowind at least, you could chose to follow their path at some point. Also, they are not always agressive (in Morrowind) or evil. In Vivec and Mar Gan, there are daedras in temples, serving Vivec (the “good” god).

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  10. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    From the UESP Wiki:

    Daedra are a class of divine beings that did not take part in the creation of the Mundus, and thus retain the full breadth of their power. The word is of Aldmeri origin, and it originally means “not our ancestors” as opposed to Aedra-“ancestors”. Technically only the plural is written Daedra, but this word is frequently used in singular as well. The proper singular form is “Daedroth”, but that has come to refer to a specific species of Daedra. Among humans in particular, these creatures are often mistakenly referred to as demons. Daedric Princes are, in fact, mostly not demonic in the conventional sense of the word. All Daedra do have a penchant for extremes and are therefore capable of tremendous acts of devastation, but only Boethiah, Molag Bal, Mephala, Mehrunes Dagon and Peryite seem to take genuine pleasure in them. As Daedra are beyond mortal comprehension, they are incapable of being truly “good” or “evil” in the conventional Western sense, and for the most part, their actions and behaviors, as well as their very natures are merely interpreted by mortals as being subjectively evil, as this is how many of the infinite Daedric concepts “transliterate” into the finite mortal world.

    Daedra come in many forms. Undoubtedly there are true Daedra, such as the Daedra Princes and highly intelligent Dremora. There are many lesser beings known to be in league with these greater powers, and it is unsaid in the game whether these constitute actual Daedra or if they are simply Daedric (having to do with the Daedra).

    A Daedroth’s physical form can be ruined, but they cannot be truly killed; the soul or Animus of a slain Daedroth returns to the void of Oblivion until it manages to re-coalesce into a physical form again. Slaying a daedra is called “banishment” instead of “death” to reflect this.

    So, not really demonic, but demon like.

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